Who is the Older Worker?

Believe it or not, if you're over 40, you're considered an older worker.

Older workers may be 45, 55 or 65 years old; in their 70s; or even older. They are full-time and part-time, temporary and permanent, white collar and blue collar. These employees work in industrial, office and health care environments. They care for patients, work in construction or on computers, drive trucks, cut lumber, make furniture, work in agriculture and build ships. They work in every imaginable industry, in every environment, and have been working for years.

Since 1950, the number of people aged 65 and older in the United States has increased from 8 to 12 percent, and many continue to work. By the end of 2002, workers in the labor force aged 55 to 64 (employed or seeking work) increased to 62.9 percent, the highest level during the postwar era.

The United States government, through the Age Discrimination in Employment (ADEA), applies the term “older worker” to employees over the age of 40. When we consider that all baby boomers reached age 40 in 2004 and are continuing to age, the pool of older workers will only continue to increase.

THE VALUE OF OLDER WORKERS

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 25 percent of the working population will reach retirement age by 2010, resulting in a potential worker shortage of nearly 10 million employees. We need to implement succession planning to prevent this shortfall and keep American industry working.

Maintaining older workers may be one solution. These employees may wish to return to work for a variety of financial or social reasons. They may no longer be able to depend on Social Security or pensions as a sole means of income, or perhaps they miss feeling they are contributing to a workplace.

Employers want the experience, knowledge, work ethic and commitment of older workers, but not the lost-work time, workers' compensation claims or other the negatives associated with injuries and illnesses of aging employees.

Administrators, safety professionals, human resource professionals and health providers should consider that older workers are willing to work different schedules; serve as menors; have invaluable experience; are perhaps more reliable; add diversity through though/approach; may be more loyal; may take work more seriously; have established networks; and are more likely to be retained.

Now, how do we manage older employees or bring some older, experienced employees back to the workplace? First, management must determine the average age and retirement intentions of the current workforce. They should also:

  • Include aging and generational issues as components for diversity training;
  • Identify the training needs of mature workers;
  • Examine policies and practices to ascertain whether they penalize or exclude mature workers;
  • Base rewards on performance, not tenure; and
  • Promote health and wellness initiatives.

THE RISKS AND CHALLENGES

Do we have to make any special accommodations for the aging or older workforce? Well, yes and no (how's that for an answer). A well-designed work place benefits everyone, young and aging, new hires and experienced workers.

Workstations and job tasks should match the needs of the individual employee and eliminate ergonomics risk factors to reduce injuries and illnesses. Different conditions for different workers may be necessary to meet the needs of any employee, regardless of age. However, there are some things older workers need to work more safely and comfortably.

Most studies suggest that experienced, older workers tend to have fewer accidents. But when an older worker does get injured, the injuries often are more severe. And once injured, the older employee may take longer to return to work.

In addition, older workers may suffer different types of injuries. Younger workers tend to get more acute injuries, eye or hand injuries, burns or lacerations, while older workers report more back injuries and cumulative trauma injuries.

Many workplace injuries are the result of doing jobs with built-in risk factors for too much force, repetitive motion injuries or awkward postures. These ergonomic-related injuries develop over time, so older workers may report more musculoskeletal injuries since they've had longer for the conditions to develop.

When employees, no matter what their age, are pushed to work beyond their capabilities and physical limitations, and to work harder than they can safely, there is a risk for an ergonomic injury. Because older workers tend to have more severe injuries when they do occur, it's important to make adjustments to work stations or work methods, tools, equipment and cycle times to keep the work within safe limits. It's also important to make sure a person is suited for a particular task and is safely able to perform all aspects of the work elements.

If there is a disconnect between employee capability and job requirements, management needs to:

  • Create alternative career paths.
  • Provide opportunities for knowledge transfer.
  • Adopt a life cycle work/life approach.
  • Provide extended leave arrangements.
  • Assist employees in making informed retirement decisions.
  • Engage “older” workers in retraining.

Remember, aging creates some real physical changes, such as loss of muscular strength and flexibility; slowed mental processings; and reduced range of motion, grip strength, nervous system responses, blood flow, tactile feedback and visual capacity.

RETURNING TO WORK

After an injury, employees should return to work as soon as possible. Assess the worker's job description, reduce ergonomic risks and clearly establish and enforce any job changes.

Management should develop return-to-work plans to include tasks at the salary level, as well as scheduled start and finish times, training, support from a mentor and clearly defined tasks and responsibilities. Finally, schedule a regular review period to determine that the worker successfully has returned to the position and is not experiencing ongoing problems.

There is no reason that older employees should not continue to work or to be hired if they chose to return to the workplace. Employers should be able to take full advantage of the experience, creativity and work ethic of the aging population.


Cynthia Roth is founder and CEO of Ergonomic Technologies Corp. (http://www.ergoworld.com) and is a member of EHS Today's editorial advisory board.

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